Guess what today is? No, not your VD exam! June 7th is Freedom of Expression Day in Mexico. While not a lot of people outside of Mexico have heard of the date, the day carries much meaning and symbolism in ways that both reflect the intentions of the government and the present-day realities of a country that is increasingly scared to speak for itself. While you are asking “What, really?” and “So my doctor’s appointment is canceled then,” we have taken the liberty of distilling the origins, effects and legacy of the holiday.
By the 1950’s, Mexico was enjoying record levels of economic prosperity. However, much of that came from the aftershocks of the Second World War and as everyone knows (let’s hope), the war was seen as a titanic struggle against Fascism. A system that disdained basic human rights and forcefully imposed its will on half of the world was crushed and a “never again” attitude was in vogue. In Mexico, the feeling was one of optimism. Then-president Miguel Aleman Valdes was instrumental in enacting universal suffrage. The president continued and proclaimed June 7th as Freedom of Expression Day. The day was in celebration of public expression as an essential right and even included offensive and extreme opinions as off limits to censorship.
The genesis for this is not surprising. Nazi Germany lived under powerful censorship laws and Japan contended with the infamous Peace Preservation Law that banned most forms of public expression and in both cases, the law was used to make dissent illegal. Even the Soviet Union’s “Stalin” constitution wasn’t that explicit and Alvares actions amounted to a small “Fuck You” towards totalitarianism and Communism. To state the obvious, the war was a not a game changer but a world changer; freedom was the universal call to arms and the Western world was no longer able to live in self-imposed hypocrisy. The Soviet Union saw no problem with living a lie and imposed its will in Eastern Europe.
That was the ideal, but the reality as always is far more complex. While the day was celebrated, the government continued to be mired in corruption and autocratic behavior. Freedom of expression was never truly respected and the government and PRI which were practically one, continued to stifle dissent. The situation came to a head in 1968 during what is now the Tlatelolco Massacre. The Olympics were scheduled to be held in Mexico City that year and local college students saw an opportunity to air their grievances with the government. The government actions made a mockery of the holiday and the effects continue to be felt today. During the 1970’s and 1980’s the government continued to disregard the law and its spirit with brutal crackdowns on suspected guerrilla strongholds and dissidents that dared to be more than the loyal opposition.
By the end of the century, Mexico’s government could no longer hold out and by the time of the 2000 elections, the press and individuals were in much better shape but another enemy would appear and make the holiday more fantasy than reality.
The Drug War is the worst crisis that the Mexican press and popular expression has suffered in a very long time. Yes, friends, the pen is under threat from a monstrously snakeskin boot-clad force. Even worse, the cartels are much more efficient at killing anyone that says anything critical of them. The situation has gotten so bad that many reporters have practiced self-censorship in order to protect themselves and their businesses. Ordinary people are also fair game and drug cartels and other criminals have taken control of the national conversation by playing up their exploits and engaging in a macabre propaganda campaign against rivals and the government. While the drug war is still being reported on, the risks are increasing. Mexico is now one of the worse places in the world to be a journalist. Many have died and many more have fled to the U.S for asylum. Meanwhile, the government seems to be unable to provide for its own citizens the freedom that it has long denied. June 7th is a day that will not come for a certain amount of time but many Mexican citizens have experienced first-hand, the freedom that unrestricted expression provides. The results have been profound and this is a chapter that will inevitably end. One day, all people in that country will be able to exercise that right and that is cause enough to continue the fight. Only then will the country be able to live out the ideals promised more than 60 years ago.